https://mattlabash.substack.com/p/happy-fourth-of-july

Cheer up. We’re still America. There are worse things to be.

Warning: this isn’t exactly a fully-formed essay. Just a grab bag of Fourth of July sentiments, poetry, and song.  Neither, despite the photo above, is it intended to be some concentrated meditation on Johnny Cash. Though if we all meditated more on Johnny Cash, we’d probably be the better for it. As the Man in Black once said, “If you aren’t gonna say exactly how and what you feel, you might as well not say anything at all.”

So I’ll just say it: something stirs in me every time I see that photo of Cash and his close personal friend, Old Glory. It’s a pretty famous photo that I’d forgotten. My friend and former colleague, Christine Rosen, sent it to me a while ago after I’d written (yet another) piece about our beleaguered country, offering, as a dedication of sorts: “Because we are at the age where youthful patriotic enthusiasm has been replaced by gratefulness for being able to appreciate the beautiful ragged old flag in these deeply weird times.” 

It’s a sight for sore eyes. Just look at it. According to UNC archivist Stephen Fletcher, it was shot by Hugh Morton at a 1974 “Singing on the Mountain” gospel fest at the foot of Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina. Cash was there for an all-day sing that dated back to 1925, when members of Linville Methodist Church would go for a Sunday picnic in the beauty of the Blue Ridge. He was there to play with The Carter Family and Carl Perkins and Cash’s backup band, The Tennessee Three.  As Fletcher quotes Morton, telling the story behind the snap:  

As Johnny Cash and I were walking across the Swinging Bridge, he asked, ‘How many flags does the wind destroy each year at Grandfather Mountain?’ When I told him several, he said, ‘I do a recitation of a poem I wrote called That Ragged Old Flag, and I’d love to have the most ragged Grandfather Mountain flag you’ve got.’ Cash has it, and we are mighty pleased he asked.

In the photo, the flag looks frayed and worse for wear.  Cash does, too – haggard and slightly pissed off, like he’s been through the ringer. By that point, with all his drinking and drugging and legal and career troubles, he indeed had been. Cash is weary, but he’s wrapped himself in the flag.  And it’s unclear to me if he’s holding it up, or if it’s upholding him.

I wanted to get out whatever this is on July 3, because nobody reads on the Fourth of July. If you’re like me, you’ll be too busy donning your “Sun’s Out, Guns Out” tank top, and drinking a rack of thin pisswater beer, and afterwards, shooting your fingers off with a Roman Candle while trying to impress the kids. These are our sacred rites of Independence Day.

Many will be drinking harder than usual this Fourth. For though we’ve made it to yet another national birthday (our 246th, we’re getting up there – might be due for assisted living soon), some people seem to think we don’t have many more ahead of us. Not as a unified country, anyway. Not with all the division and rancor and vengefulness and brinkmanship, and even occasional violence. Trends writers seem to enjoy kicking around talk of potential civil war. (Which admittedly, is sexier than writing about spiking supermarket prices.) Or at the very least, they suggest our nation might bisect itself. The Red Gang over here, the Blue Gang over there. While I’m not exactly an optimist by nature, I think America, as heavily armed as we are, is too obese and physically inactive to start shooting at each other and meaning it for sustained periods of time. Thank God for Netflix and fatty foods – lethargy and bloat might be our best insurance policy.

As an acutely disillusioned conservative who lives in a Trumpy county in a blue state (Maryland), I’m used to treading water in crosscurrents. And you know what? It’s fine. It’s doable. In fact, we’ve been doing it for 246 years, we just didn’t have as many professional windbags convincing us that we’re doomed. And by the way, we are doomed if we think we are. Which is why we have to stop thinking we are.

America is not perfect, and never was during whatever imaginary period you’re romanticizing from a past that never existed. What we’ve always had going for us is that unlike plenty of other countries, we can work through that, and have. Which is not to say it’s easy work. But too many now seem to think we’re entitled to a work stoppage, which, sorry, is deeply un-American.

Besides, I don’t want to live in “two Americas,” unless it’s the rest of us against Florida. (I could live with that.)  It sounds too much like a John Edwards campaign slogan from 2004. Plus, if I wanted to go to Florida – and I can’t imagine why I would – who needs the passport hassles?

No matter how much rancor there is over Roe V. Wade or January 6 or illegal immigration or you name it, we’re all children of God and brothers and sisters. Or as we’ll be calling ourselves sooner rather than later if Democrats don’t start plugging the border, hermanos y hermanas.  As any family that makes it through knows, you don’t have to love all your siblings. But you do have to live with them. So if you can learn to love them, or at least climb into their skin and walk around in it for a while, as Atticus Finch put it, you’re only going to make it easier on yourself. Hell, I’d even be able to make a skin suit of Mark Meadows, who I just laid a 3,000 word hammer shot on, and walk around in his shoes. Here’s hoping it’s a perp walk. But while I greatly disapprove of him, my God doesn’t afford me the option of hating him.  

And while I don’t at all approve of our leaky borders either, the one thing I remain encouraged by is that aspiring Americans the world over still think this country is worth the trouble of getting to, crossing deserts and swimming dangerous rivers for the pleasure.  Here’s hoping they stay right about that, even when we don’t let them in. That’s not to say we shouldn’t be concerned about all the people who want in, and who break our laws to do so. But we should be just as worried, if not more, that our national life could deteriorate so badly that they no longer bother to try – that we remind them too much of the horrors of home. Which would be on us, not them.

Bonus Fourth of July Poem:  While looking for a poem to capture the day, I was tempted to go with the usual suspects. Maybe Uncle Walt’s “I Hear America Singing.” Bill Clinton thought Whitman was good enough to use him to pitch woo to Monica Lewinsky, and it seems to have worked. Or Langston Hughes’ darkly optimistic masterpiece, “Let America Be America Again.” O yes/ I say it plain/ America never was America to me/ And yet I swear this oath -/ America will be.

Instead, on the night we celebrate with exploding lights, I thought  I’d go with Charles Bukowksi, the drunken old fool who occasionally tamped down his rage and narcissism to write something as beautiful as this. He was very American that way. This is “The Laughing Heart”:

your life is your life
don’t let it be clubbed into dank submission.
be on the watch.
there are ways out.
there is light somewhere.
it may not be much light but
it beats the darkness.
be on the watch.
the gods will offer you chances.
know them.
take them.
you can’t beat death but
you can beat death in life, sometimes.
and the more often you learn to do it,
the more light there will be.
your life is your life.
know it while you have it.
you are marvelous
the gods wait to delight
in you.

Bonus Song: I’ve always liked this tune from Ryan Adams, “New York, New York,” which has a Fourth of July mention early on, though most people think of it as a 9/11 song. Not because it’s about 9/11, but because the video was shot in front of the World Trade Center four days before terrorists turned it into a heap of concrete and ash. Which come to think of it, might’ve been the last time we were truly unified as a country. Seeing those towers is eerie even now. It seemed like they’d be there forever, until they weren’t.

Double Bonus Song:  In keeping with Bukowksi’s run-to-the-light theme, which also has an echo of Poltergeist, here’s a stripped down piano gem from Francis and the Lights singing with Kanye West and choir at Kanye’s Sunday Service. “Take Me To The Light.” It’s pristine:

PS: Several readers have alerted me that the bookmark I placed on this video isn’t showing up in their phones. If not, and you came back to the site, the song starts at the 1 hour, 17 minute mark. Or if that’s beyond your technological capabilities, I put another version of the song underneath it.

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